In the thick of Jonathan Alter’s Newsweek cover story this week — headline, “The Race Is On. Obama & Hillary Are Already Squaring Off Over 2008. But is America Ready For Either One?” — comes this paragraph (emphasis ours):
It’s hard to assess the strength of anti-Hillary sentiment in the country. Her advisers point to her huge re-election victory in New York … The national polls sponsored by “Hillaryland” (as her universe is known) are similarly encouraging. But the gap between what voters say they would do and how they think their neighbors would react raises suspicions. “It makes me think these polls are phony as hell,” says former representative Pat Schroeder, who abandoned a possible presidential campaign in 1988. “There’s a hard core out there who won’t vote for a woman.”
Could it be that Newsweek, too, thinks “these polls are phony as hell” — including its own December 6-7, 2006 poll? Why else would the magazine have ignored much of its own polling data in this story — and the “newsiest” bits of their polling data at that (if, that is, you believe — as most in the media seem to — that a snapshot of what 1,000 Americans think right now about assorted hypothetical contests that are still over a year off qualifies as news).
Let’s back up for a moment. What is the purported purpose of Alter’s piece? Among the questions Alter ponders: Are we ready to elect a woman to the presidency? A black man? For which are we readier? And, can we really separate these abstract questions from the individuals themselves? (No, we can’t.) So when it comes to Clinton v. Obama, who has the better shot? In other words, this is as much a speculative piece about the outcome of an imagined Clinton v. Obama contest as it is a think piece about the question, Is America Ready for a Minority in the White House?
So, who is better positioned in the hypothetical face-off Newsweek Photoshopped onto its cover? Newsweek’s own poll offered one answer (a premature, moment-in-time and likely meaningless answer, but an answer of sorts nonetheless). The magazine’s poll showed Clinton leading Obama 50 to 32 percent among “registered Democrats and Democratic leaners.” (Of course, this poll pre-dated by a few days Obama’s Big New Hampshire Moment — a Moment that, combined with the media’s reaction to it, might have changed this poll’s results. Or not.) Oddly, this 50 to 32 data made it into Newsweek’s press release about the cover story, but not into the story itself. Why? Did it not fit into the “Race Is On” theme the magazine was going for?
There was plenty of other Newsweek polling data that didn’t make it into Newsweek’s story. In fact, people who put credence in polling of this sort might argue that Newsweek left out all the newsiest bits from its poll. For example, unlike other recent polls, Newsweek’s poll showed Clinton beating Sen. John McCain 50 to 43 among registered voters asked which candidate they’d vote for (Clinton or McCain) if the election were today. When the choices were Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, it was Clinton 48, Giuliani 47. The poll showed Obama, too, running competitively against both Republicans (McCain 45, Obama 43; Giuliani 47, Obama 44). Of course, most of these results are still within the 4 percent margin of error. That, and it’s only December 2006. Still, mightn’t this data contribute to a discussion of candidates Clinton and Obama and who might actually make it to the White House, if that is the discussion to which one purports to be contributing? (New York tabloids know from newsy — the New York Post and Newsday yesterday offered far more thorough reports of Newsweek’s poll findings than Newsweek did itself — a fact to which Newsday alluded in its piece but the Post did not, preferring instead to give “Clinton pollster Mark Penn” a couple of paragraphs to explain why Hillary is a formidable candidate — make that presumptive candidate.)
In the inevitable discussion of whether or not Clinton is “electable,” Newsweek’s Alter opted to cite someone else’s poll (one from Marist that’s even older — conducted Nov. 27-Dec. 3, 2006 — than Newsweek’s). To wit, as MediaMatters notes, on the heels of the paragraph cited at the start of this post (about there being a “hard core out there who won’t vote for a woman”) comes this:
Or perhaps just not for Hillary. A recent Marist Poll showed that 47 percent of respondents nationwide “definitely will not consider” voting for her, a percentage that alarms some former aides to President Clinton. Those numbers will need to change for Democratic primary voters — now comfortable with assessing electability — to move her way.
So Newsweek disregards its own data — data which is, arguably, relevant to the evergreen “is this person electable?” debate (in head-to-heads, Clinton bests Obama, McCain and Giuliani) — in favor of someone else’s even more dated findings (albeit findings that are perhaps more jolting and certainly more in line with “The Race” between Clinton and Obama being “On”).
By leaving out much of Newsweek’s polling data, Alter was also able to save precious space for memorably pessimistic quotes from anonymous sources such as “one of Bill Clinton’s longtime advisers, who did not wish to be quoted assessing [Clinton’s] candidacy,” “one close friend of the family, who requested anonymity for obvious reasons” (i.e., so s/he could dish about the Clintons’ personal life), and “a former senior aide to President Bush who doesn’t want to be quoted speculating about Democrats.” And, lest you think Alter relied entirely on anonymice, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), for one, went on the record to add fuel to the “Race Is On” fire with this fine bit of reasoning: “Clyburn … told Newsweek last week that he didn’t think President Clinton’s popularity would necessarily rub off on his wife. ‘Would my wife do as well as I did [running for office]? I don’t think so,’ Clyburn says.” (Anyone know anything about Mrs. Jim Clyburn and how her political career might compare to Sen. Clinton’s?)
Greg Sargent over at TPM Café reached Newsweek’s editor, Jon Meacham, and raised with him some of the questions we’ve raised above. Meacham told Sargent, in a nutshell, that the numbers the magazine left out were old (and yet the Marist Poll numbers cited in the story are even older) and that they were not relevant to their story. (Why isn’t data that speaks to how a potential female candidate and a potential black candidate might fare against potential white male challengers — and against each other —- relevant to a story about a female candidate’s and a black candidate’s relative chances of reaching the White House?)
We’re going to end this, for now, by citing what Ben Smith, the New York Daily News’ political blogger observed (confessed?) this morning: “[T]his seems to be an illustration of how conventional wisdom moves, or doesn’t. Faced with a poll like that, you either decide your pollster has discovered something new and hidden to other reputable pollsters, and play it big … Or you decide that it’s an outlier, and ignore it. Newsweek seems to have chosen the latter, equally reasonable course. But this is one of the reasons reporting on polls is so skewed: we tend to report the polls telling us what we already believe, and to ignore the others.”
Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.
In other words: the Race Is On!